by Tomislav Podreka and compliments of Fresh Cup Magazine


We are, as an industry, at the beginning of the establishment of an American tea ritual. Tea has an evolution as diverse as the civilizations that have integrated it. Over the course of the last 5000 years, tea has found a place not just on our tables, but in the fabric of the societies that incorporate it.
 
Tea is the one food that is most recognizably associated with ritual and ceremony. It is a small yet luxurious ritual that an immigrant can turn to for the warmth and reminiscence of a distant home. Tea represents both the prestigious and the common and is found in the shanties of the ghettos as well as the pantries of the wealthy. It holds no social standings and it is seen the world over as an egalitarian beverage.
 
America is in the grip of establishing tea on both the social and economic map. If we look at the historical parameters set in every country, this starts with the elucidation of the medicinal benefits of tea. In China, the myth of the emperor Shen Nung evoked the resonance of health and vitality.
 
China became the first of the great tea-drinking nations to use health to advocate the drinking of tea. Later, this would become the catch cry of the British as they spoke of the healthful and invigorating properties of Camellia sinensis. Of course, today we have evidence and research to support these claims of folklore.
 
More importantly, this is a pattern of “marketing” that brings people into the fold so to speak. The United States is currently in the midst of the “health benefits” stage. Every week there is another story in the media about the medicinal benefits of tea. This is really an introduction—a carrot that dangles—and as we chase the carrot, we find ourselves moving closer to our own tea tradition.
 
During the industrial revolution, tea in England won the endorsement of factory Barons who acted on the most practical of motives: to wean the workers of the customary breakfast ale and thus help reduce onsite accidents, which slowed productivity. This is also occurring in America today, only our productivity is hampered by stress rather than alcohol.
 
Today, there are those who would lead us to believe in the spiritual embodiment of this beverage—that tea is the catalyst to a deeper experience ... religion and philosophy. The structure of a philosophy is integral to the seating of a tea society. Philosophy establishes perceptions and ritual and gives a certain structure without encumbering one with equipment. This is the second and most telling stage of a permanent incorporation of tea into American culture. It has occurred in every other culture, and there will be no difference here. Tea will share what will be as simple as the basic ritual that coffee has enjoyed in America. How many times have we heard, “I can’t get started without my morning coffee.”? This is the most basic establishment of ritual—simple comfort.
 
Herbals helped take America’s tea’s cultural to another level. These infusions have made great inroads as a common staple of American life. Early on, they were a simple remedy to minor afflictions, such as sleeplessness, stomach aches or stress. Tisanes and infusions created a small ritual all their own in kitchens across America. Herbals had, in fact, set the stage for a revival of Camellia sinensis into the lifestyle of a nation; all tea needed was that first great health claim—the inhibition of cancer.
 
As scientists began studying tea and health, an onslaught of studies on tea and cancer began proliferating through the media, and research on other ailments soon followed. There was a study illustrating radical reductions in heart disease through drinking tea, and another on how tea could prevent the decay of the elasticity of the skin.
 
Suddenly tea could make you live longer and look younger. The health benefits of tea, along with a nation searching for alternative cultural experiences, catapulted tea into newspapers and magazines everywhere.
 
From these introductions to a public looking for better and tastier ways to stay healthy, sprung a core of aficionados who began to appreciate a certain meditative quality of preparing and taking tea, be it alone or with friends. Thus, tea has slowed the pace of life. The luxury of personal investment becomes available, and the beginning of a tea culture now starts to take shape in America.
 
The marvel of living in the U.S. at this time is that not only am I involved in an industry that is defining itself as a presence, but I am participating in the development and defining of a culture that, aside from the obvious historical precedence, is wholly modern! By wholly modern I mean a culture that is not a function of any single cultural or societal influence. The greatest illustration of the uniqueness of American tea drinking is iced tea. Wholly indigenous to the U.S., iced tea is the simplest form of social adaptation of a beverage that is globally embraced.
 
What and how we drink tea will slowly sway and influence what American tea culture will become. Key cities like New York and Los Angeles will be significant, not so much because they’re major metropolises, but because of the amount of immigration that occurs to both of cities, which are still literal gateways to the New World.
 
Although I am myself an immigrant who has seen many incarnations of tea, it was not until I moved to the U.S. that I witnessed such great depth of variety in tea service and ritual. For instance, when I arrived, I could easily take comfort in an Australian “tea” with a British-style service and not be far from home.
 
But what made tea endearing to me was not tea and scones, but rather tea and palacinka—Croatian crepes, jam-filled and dusted with icing sugar—or robust Assam with a squeeze of orange. When immigrants come to America, they import the small, incidental motion of a personal ritual. In their country it is an embellishment to an established culture; in America it is a contribution to an emerging tradition.
 
If you look around the country, you will find a number of successful teahouses prospering, all of which have looked to other cultures for inspiration and guidance but have ultimately created their own sensibilities. Teaism in Washington, D.C., has an Eastern feel, but it also embodies the melting pot feel of the U.S. There is a bustle in Teaism that reminds me of an ethnic marketplace. It prides itself on the variety of tea adorning its shelves and the knowledge present within its walls.
 
In the same city there is Tryst, a lounge that gives both coffee and tea equal respect. Tryst encourages an academic curiosity about the refining elements of coffee and tea, causing a certain cross-pollination of connoisseurs—a marvelous democracy of beverages. How much more American could it be?
 
On the other coast, there’s Zen Zoo, which has adapted a modern Taiwanese concept, bubble tea. At Zen Zoo you can observe the art of feng shui while you sip your bubble tea concoction from a Pilsner glass. This teahouse exudes a tangible energy—a serenity, but also an undercurrent of excitement. There is no denying the influences in each of these teahouses, but the execution and delivery are all American.
 
There are three distinct regions of the U.S. that I think will define what our tea culture will ultimately become. On the West Coast, with its strong Asian immigration and integration, a strong Occidental culture is emerging. Emphasis is placed on the academic nature of the tea, and higher prices reflect that notion. Conversely, the same coast is home to some of the more innovative and fun locations to take tea, such as the aforementioned Zen Zoo.
 
The East Coast, on the other hand, continues to flirt with the Empire, not so much British, as Commonwealth. Social Graces, a teahouse in Easton, Penn., just by name implies an English sensibility, which it does draw from, but it also has a feel that could never directly be called English. New York has great tea rooms, many of which have an unmistakable European air, butthe overall execution leaves no doubt as to which city you are sipping in.
 
The South has more formal touch, not in presentation so much as its use of tea as a vehicle to convey social grace and breeding. Tea in the South is less about the product and more about the exhibition. The South shows the grace of an older culture, almost pretentious, but also inclusive, enthusiastic, refined, and slightly decadent.
 
Cultural identity defines our commerce and what we see as indispensable in our everyday lives. For those in the tea business tea traditions are an illustration of longevity. They are also an opportunity to explore greater involvement in the industry and to discover the boundless rewards tea can yield.

Tomislav Podreka is the founder of Serendipitea, enough the largest independent importers of fine and specialty teas in the United States. He is the education chairman of the American Premium Tea Institute. A popular speaker on the history and philosophy of tea, he travels across the country lecturing and giving tea tastings. He lives in Connecticut. For more information, visit serendipitea.com.


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